Burnt out buses in the village of Khurcha. Photo: Batumelebi newspaper
A probe by UN observers into the May 21 shooting in the Abkhaz conflict zone casts doubt over the Georgian version of the incident.
Georgian TV stations reported on election day, May 21, that in the village of Khurcha on the Abkhaz administrative border the Abkhaz side blew up two buses ferrying ethnic Georgians from the Gali district of breakaway Abkhazia to Zugdidi. The passengers were on their way to vote, according to those reports. The Georgian Interior Ministry said that four women were injured in the attack. TV stations also aired footage of the incident.
A report by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on situation in Abkhazia, which covers the period between April and July, 2008, among other developments, also describes the Khurcha incident.
The incident is described by the report as “the most serious” that occurred in the Zugdidi area during the reporting period. The report is divided into three main sections describing situation in the Gali – on the Abkhaz side of the administrative border, Zugdidi – on the Georgian side of the administrative border and Kodori – three areas under the scope of monitoring of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG).
The report says that heavy firing took place around a football field in Khurcha where a number of people, mainly from the Gali district, as the report puts it, “were requested to gather” to be transported by bus to Zugdidi to cast a ballot in the parliamentary elections.
The people assembled on the football field fled after an initial burst of small arms fire “by the would-be attackers” and the empty buses were then hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
An investigation by UNOMIG into this incident, according to the report, found that grenades were fired from “approximately 100 meters from the buses, on the Georgian-controlled side of the ceasefire line.”
“While no hard evidence has been found so far regarding the identity of the perpetrators, inconsistencies in the circumstances surrounding the incident, in particular the fact that the incident was filmed in such a way as to suggest that events were anticipated rather than simply recorded as they were happening, require UNOMIG to continue its investigation,” the report reads.
Three persons were brought to the hospital, one severely injured, according to the report.
An investigative documentary produced by the Tbilisi-based Reporter studio has claimed that the Khurcha incident was pre-arranged and has indicated that it was staged by the Georgian side. The documentary, in particular claims, based on examination of the entire TV footage (including those which were not aired by the television stations), that a cameraman, who recorded the moment when grenades hit the busses, was in fact expecting that to happen with the camera standing on a tripod.
The documentary also includes interviews with some local residents, who say that two unknown men came to the village earlier before the incident asking locals to follow them as “people were needed for a video shoot.”
The UN Secretary General’s report also notes that contrary to the Georgian side’s allegations, “the local population was not prevented from crossing the ceasefire line” on the election day. Officials in Tbilisi have claimed that authorities in the breakaway region were not allowing ethnic Georgian population of Gali district to arrive in Zugdidi for casting ballot.
When asked about the allegations that the incident was staged, Alexandre Lomaia, the secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, told the Rustavi 2 TV’s weekly program Triangle on July 16 that he was “surprised” by the fact in itself that the Georgian version of the incident was questioned.
“Could anyone be surprised that separatists were behind it [the attack]?” Lomaia said.
The UN Secretary General’s report also said that the overall situation in Abkhazia remained tense during the reporting period.
“One of the sources of this tension was the intensification of air activities over the zone of conflict,” it noted.
The Abkhaz side has claimed that it shot down seven Georgian unmanned reconnaissance drones over Abkhazia between March 18 and May 12. After initial denial the Georgian side has confirmed that three of its drones were shot down. UNOMIG probe into the April 20 downing of the drone said that it was shot down by the Russian fighter jet.
The UN Secretary General’s report says that UNOMIG has informed the Georgian side that flights by reconnaissance drones constituted a violation of the 1994 Moscow agreement on ceasefire and separation of forces.
“UNOMIG also considers actions, whether by air-to-air missile or ground-based air defence systems, taken against Georgian UAVs over the zone of conflict — albeit in a defensive posture — to be violations of the ceasefire regime, since the Moscow Agreement prohibits the introduction and operation of heavy weapons in the zone of conflict,” the UN Secretary General’s report reads.
Georgia said in late May that it had suspended flights of unmanned reconnaissance drones over Abkhazia after UN observers said they violated the 1994 Moscow agreement. The Georgian side, however, also said that Tbilisi would resume flights if there were a threat requiring them to do so.
Another reason of tensions, including in the Gali district, the report says, was “a general concern about an impending resumption of hostilities.”
In April and May the Abkhaz and Russian sides were accusing Tbilisi of military build-up along the administrative border, as well as in upper Kodori Gorge.
The UN Secretary General’s report, however, says that “there were no signs of substantial increases in the deployment of security forces in the zone of conflict.”
And in respect of upper Kodori Gorge, the report notes: “While the Abkhaz side and the CIS peacekeeping force expressed their concerns regarding an alleged introduction of additional Georgian personnel, including from the Ministry of Defence, and of heavy military equipment into the upper Kodori Valley, the Mission did not observe signs of a large-scale induction of security forces.”
It, however, also said that the UN observers were not allowed access to some areas of the Tbilisi-controlled territory in Abkhazia, in particular to the Kvabchara Valley. “UNOMIG requested the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs to ensure more transparency, especially in those areas that had been inaccessible, in order to enable the Mission to ascertain fully the facts on the ground,” the report reads.